Better Than Most is a regular feature of The Business of Giving, examining the best places to work among social good businesses and nonprofit organizations.
Denver: And for this edition, we took a trip off to Massachusettes and to the campus of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. We’ll begin with their President and Director, Mark Abbot and then you will hear from some of the other members of the team.
Mark: being out on a research ship, you have to work together. You get physicists, chemists, biologists; and that’s just inherent in the DNA of ocean science. But at Woods Hole Oceanographic, since we’re all focused on that; we’re not doing undergraduate teaching. We’re not part of a large university that has other activities, be it engineering or liberal arts. All good things, but we really focused on understanding the ocean as a system; that really empowers a lot more team building. Because to attack the science, you’ve got to all work together.
Amy: I think those kinds of activities happen a lot at the institution where we have the opportunity to go out and do a very unique scientific expedition to address the unique scientific problem. Often something happening in the environment that the public is very aware of, and I think that’s something very unique here because we have such a large scientific staff that we have. The integration of engineering and science and support from policy to education to communications; that all that can really come together and help us mobilize and quickly get out and do really novel science.
Erin: The thing that makes it possible to cross these boundaries at WHOI are simply the fact that it’s a very open and collaborative culture. If you walk on any of the hallways here, the doors are always open. You feel very welcome in the other departments. Again, I feel like I can walk across the street, poke my head into anyone’s lab and there will be someone there who is excited to talk to me about whatever they’re working on. I don’t know if it’s the fact that architecturally, WHOI has been built so that it’s easy to go into everybody’s lab but you walk down the halls in Bigelow and people are standing in the stairways having conversations or you can easily pop in and talk to anybody.
Jonathan: I think one of the reasons it’s so easy to collaborate at WHOI is because there’s so few rules. I came here after working 10 years at other places and I was sort of shocked to find out that no one was going to tell me what to do. I came in not as a senior person with some responsibility, and there was nobody telling me how to run my projects. Nobody who I was particularly reporting to [0:05:57.5]. So if want to talk to somebody at the department and seek more work, there’s nobody telling me not to find that interesting work. There’s nobody; in fact the people will encourage me on, you get credit for doing that.
Stephanie: The first thing they all said was its incredibly welcoming. People are kind and nice, and they take you in right away and ask you questions and make you feel like you’re going to be taken care of. In fact in our lab, we had a sign over our computers that read, “Take care of your job. Take care of yourself. Take of each other.
Danielle: We don’t put out something that we feel isn’t vetted. The scientists, they go through a vetting process with their peers, out at conferences where they’re in this culture of you put something out there, you have to be prepared to have some else question it. As a communicator, we do not put anything out that hasn’t been vetted. Sometimes 10, 15 times. You should see the version numbers on some of the communications that we’re putting out. There’s a lot of wow to that. We are here to explore this place, try to better understand it and communicate it, so we can be better stewards.
Collin: My favorite thing about working at WHOI is that I do not have a boss. I technically have mentors that guide me throughout the process of trying to reach tenure and I have commitments that I have to go to. I go to meetings, I sit on committees. But every single day, I can come into my own lab and prioritize how I’m going to use my time. If I have a new idea, I can make time to test that idea out in my lab. It is incredibly – that sense of freedom is liberating. You can come up with new ideas every single day at work with your team and try to discover something new. I don’t think you’d have that at a different type of institution where someone is overseeing every little thing that you’re doing and micromanaging your time. And I really value that here.
Aran: It is this long-term research institution. It allows you to tackle some of the big questions that you want to get to. That gets the dice back to that other word, flexibility. You have a real flexibility to choose what you want to do; what question you think is really important and how to basically tackle that. How do you really get the job done? You get a lot of flexibility in that, and that gives you access that’s really rapid, gives you access to the family support that you need here as well too. We have a lot of flexibility.
Amy: To go to the quaint little restaurants including the Captain Kidd and the coffee shop and also to take the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard. It’s very much the place that people want to come and see, that tourists really value, and we’re lucky to be able to work in a place that everybody wants to come to, and I think that free parking perk is fantastic on weekends and evenings in particular when you also want to share the environment and try to get into some of these busy, bustling restaurants that we are able to park right there for free whereas many people have to park several miles down the road and take buses into our town.
Erin: The other thing that I like about that working on cool stuff with great people, I can work with academics and scientists on a broad range of different problems outside of my own discipline, and I can also find engineers to help me bring ideas to life. You’re not doing this work in a vacuum at WHOI. There’s a whole group of electrical, mechanical, and software engineers who you can hire on to your projects to help you implement things, and you can have admin support to help manage large projects and to go after grants.
Jonathan: Poor behavior should be followed by no one will work with you if you’re on soft money. You don’t have money to spend. You don’t have a job. Erin won’t hire if you’re a jerk. That’s really part and parcel of working at WHOI, is that if you’re a bad actor, you get a reputation, and you usually don’t last that long. It’s not entirely true. There are exceptions but to a large extent, the feedback you get is direct and monetary, and you don’t get interesting work. You don’t get to work with good people and for many of us, not working with good people and having interesting work is a primary reason for coming to WHOI, so behave well; most people would want to work with you. You can work on great things together, and it’s not so much a disciplinary thing. It’s a very positive thing. You form good teams that way.
Stephanie: We have a robust workplace climate committee and a women’s committee. Quarterly, they have workshops that they call communities, and it’s a place where people come together in one of our buildings, the last one we had a hundred people there at least. They select a topic. One was implicit bias and the last one was gender equity in various tasks whether it’s in the field, the lab, or the office. You have a paper that you read ahead of time, and they have questions that they offer to direct the conversation. Typically, they just have a very brief introduction, and then they ask people to get into tables. So, there’s maybe five to six people at the table and then they just openly talk, and they might use a question as a prompt.
Danielle: I’d like to talk about my favorite perk of working at Woods Hole, and that’s being in walking distance to the ocean. For example, this past summer, I challenged myself to swim in the ocean every single day, and I can’t think of another place I could work where I can go, go at lunch. Sometimes I would only have 20 minutes between meetings and being busy, and I would rush down there, I would jump in the ocean. It was instant Zen, instant meditation, and I would come back and feel refreshed and just feel better about things.
Collin: In some cases you can actually build an instrument to do things for you that are a lot more efficient than going out and grabbing a sample on your own. The one skill that I learned is that if you can think of it, you can probably convince someone here to build it for you, and you’re going to get way more data with high, better precision, better accuracy. In general, you’re going to do better science.
Aran: When I was little, the job I wanted was a job that I didn’t have to feel like I was going to work every day. We’ve talked about this a little bit but this is basically, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is community of people that love the ocean. You just love the water. So that’s either going swimming quite often or studying the water or bringing your dog down the water or whatever sort of… we like that water and aquatic atmosphere and this hub down here really provides that. That community really fosters that interdisciplinary collaboration. It breaks down the silos almost inherently in that we have this group of people that really 1have a passion about the same kind of thing.
Amy: I wanted to mention another unique workplace feature here at WHOI, and that is that a lot of us spend time at sea, extended periods of time either in the field at a coastal field station, we’re actually on a research vessel. Sometimes these are a couple of weeks. Sometimes, these are many weeks or even a couple of months. There are some very unique aspects of being at sea together with a group of people. There’s a lot of camaraderie that develops, a lot of working together, a lot of mentoring of each other that you really can’t experience day to day out at the workplace. My students call going to sea as summer camp for scientists because you’re with each other 24/7, and you’re forced to be together.
Erin: I would like to address the question of innovation. WHOI is unique in that it doesn’t just foster innovation. It fosters innovation in the real world. It’s not innovation for innovation’s sake but innovation for the sake of addressing very difficult environments that we encounter every day as scientists. You have to have things that work in the open ocean that work in the arctic, that work in very hot and humid climates. So, the engineers here aren’t solving toy problems. They’re solving real problems that existing technology doesn’t work for.
Jonathan: There’s just you and maybe 12 other people that are involved, you going to be out there for a set number of days. It’s either going to work or not work, and it’s going to be a bad couple of weeks if it doesn’t work. But when I think of the things I’m proudest of and happiest of at my work at WHOI, they all involve making things work at sea with a bunch of people who I like being there with.
Stephanie: Another very exciting thing about innovation at WHOI is we offer a pitchathon. Last month, the technology office offered this. Four scientists and engineer had to pitch an idea; whether it’s technology or data management or battery that can last longer with sand, saltwater and be under water. They had 10 minutes to give a pitch. The whole town was invited which was very exciting, and I think that’s very new for us. Typically, we pitch something maybe with someone down the hall or pitch something with your department. But this pitching to the whole community was very exciting. And the reward is $75,000 as startup money to then move forward with whatever your technology is or your data management is or your battery pack is.
Aran: That’s basically pride and trying to be the best institution in the world.it comes from all across the institution have that. We get that in a way through; at least I feel I get that support through a lot of mentorship and support, so I can easily go down the hall and ask folks and others if I have a question and we try and keep that open door policy. There’s an abundance of safety nets to keep track of you and make sure you’re getting the mentorship or the ability to ask questions if you need to.
Mark: People want to see impact in more ways than just – How many scientific papers did you publish where you were the first author? We want to start to look at what is the importance of their impact beyond just the science. That’s obviously the gold standard. But did you engage with students? Did you engage with public agencies? Did you really unlock and enable other scientists to succeed? Again, it’s kind of building on that culture.
Denver: I want to thank Colin Reed, for helping to arrange my visit and to all those who participated in this piece, Amy Aprill, Erin Fischell, Jonathan Howland, Stephanie Madsen, Danielle Fino, Collin Ward and Aran Mooney. If you like to hear this again, read the transcript or see pictures of the participants, come to www.denver-frederick.com, where we will have a link there to my full interview with Mark Abbott, the President of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
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